Donald Singleton was 22 and fresh back from Vietnam when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis.
Theodore Leroy Fisher, 8, wasn’t even on the planet yet.
Saturday morning, both were at Richmond Hill’s first parade honoring the Nobel Prize winning civil rights leader – in fact, Singleton was in the parade and marching at its head, arm-in-arm with Mayor Russ Carpenter.
Fisher, a third-grader at Gould Elementary in Savannah, was on the sidelines watching with Sheila Griffin, a longtime Richmond Hill resident.
He only knew King from history books. It was enough.
“Martin Luther King said ‘I have a dream my children will have peace,’” Fisher said, his words coming in a rush. “It doesn’t matter if they’re black or white, they don’t need to get bullied, or told to go to black schools or white schools. I am sad that he died. We miss you, Martin Luther King.”
Singleton was paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division during Vietnam, but had been assigned to the 82nd Airborne in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, when he got back to the U.S. in 1968, two months before King was murdered.
Fearing rioting, federal officials sent troops to Washington.
“They locked us down when he got killed, no one could leave the post,” Singleton recalled. “The next day we were in Washington, D.C., and as the aircraft we were in flew over Washington, the town was on fire, man. All we saw was smoke.”
Singleton recalled his unit getting together its vehicles, weapons and ammo and getting “ready to destroy my brothers and sisters,” he said. “Two months before that I was in Vietnam fighting the enemy, two months later I’m in Washington fighting my brothers and sisters.”
Wounded in Vietnam and long an advocate for veterans, Singleton is almost a rarity in Richmond Hill these days.
He was born and raised here.
“I grew up in this town,” he said. “I can remember when there was nothing here. Maybe two paved roads, no subdivisions, one grocery store.”
Singleton, the first black grand marshal in Richmond Hill Christmas parade history, also believes the parade honoring King was, as Carpenter would say later in the afternoon, long overdue.
“This was the first one,” he said. “It won’t be the last.”
Singleton said the parade brings a message of hope at a time when national politics are fragmented by division.
“I think it brought people together, and we need to be together,” he said, noting there never should’ve been a need for the civil rights movement. “We should’ve been together from day one.”
Despite that, the parade was what Singleton said is a step in the right direction for his hometown.
“It means so much to me,” he said.
Others were moved, as well.
“It was beautiful,” Griffin said. “It was more than what I expected, and it shows how far we’ve come. That’s the beauty of it.”
Originally from Texas, Griffin has lived in Richmond Hill for 26 years, she said, adding she was also proud of Richmond Hill High School’s band, one of four to march in the parade.
“When I first came here the band had black t-shirts and black jeans, and now they have a uniform,” she said. “That’s my Richmond Hill. It’s just awesome.”
For Griffin, King’s legacy is about one word.
“Unity,” she said.
Craig and Sharon Butts are the husband-and-wife founders of Unity in the Community and the driving force behind the parade and celebration honoring King.
Craig Butts called the first-ever MLK parade the result of “a perfect storm. It went better than we thought and turnout was better than we thought,” he said.
Audrey Harris and Monica Ross watched the parade together. Both are longtime Richmond Hill residents. The parade was important because King was important, Harris said.
“I think everyone should honor his work,” she said. “It’s a privilege to have this parade honoring a great man.”
Ross, whose husband is retired military and now works for the Bryan County High School JROTC department, said the parade “is just great, and it’s overdue.”
Phillip Higgins, who sat on a cooler while his daughters played nearby, has lived in Richmond Hill since 1988.
It’s a city that he believes has always “seemed to get along,” he said.
Higgins said he brought his daughters to the parade to teach them about King, and to show respect for his message of tolerance and peace.
“I do believe in his message,” Higgins said. “He was for all rights, not just equal rights for different races, but for all rights.”
After the parade, various local, area and state leaders spoke during a celebration scheduled to run for four hours under the pavilion at J.F. Gregory Park.
Longtime state Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, said to be one of the most gifted speakers in the state legislature, was among them.
The Bryan County native is both an Air Force veteran and veteran of the civil rights movement. Williams said he was arrested 17 times during various marches in the 1960s.
What’s more, as a ninth-grader in 1961, Williams met King when King was staying at Dorchester Academy in Midway planning his march on Birmingham. Two years later, Williams went on the March on Washington, and three years later Williams was in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama.
“I was blessed to play softball and basketball with him, and just look at him as the man he was, a great man,” Williams said, adding that King “freed not just black folks, he freed America and the world.”
Williams introduced the day’s keynote speaker, fellow state Rep. Carl Gilliard, D-Savannah.
Gilliard, the founder of Feed the Hungry Savannah, called Saturday’s parade “a great day in Richmond Hill,” before urging those who attended to get involved in local issues while repeatedly asking “where do we go from here?”
“It’s time for you to keep moving, time for you to get off your posteriors,” Gilliard said. “Don’t just sit there and talk about the problems. What are you doing for your neighborhood?”
Also speaking was state Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Garden City, who said that King’s quote about love “being the only source capable of transforming an enemy into a friend,” gave him hope that his children and grandchildren would live in a society such as that envisioned by King.
Others to speak were Richmond Hill resident Lisa Ring, who ran against U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter in the 2018 election, and the Rev. Thurmond Tillman, who urged those who attended to participate in the 2020 census.
Carpenter gave the opening remarks.
The Prince of Peace Choir and Ashley Reed were among those to perform during the event, which was emceed by Minister Marco George and Chatham County Assistant DA Candice Burford. According to the program, the event also included Richmond Hill JROTC, the Jacob Evans Band, Pastor Daniel Boyd, Singleton, Deshown Heart, Jamal Toure, Darryl Anderson, Lynda Adamson, Patricia Barbee, Clay Hodges and closing remarks from the Butts.
Gilliard, who ended his speech with a “an old freedom” song, said poverty in the U.S. didn’t discriminate and that more than 67 percent of the people his organization feeds “don’t look like us,” because “poor people are not just black people,” and “poverty is killing communities.”
Gilliard stressed the importance of finding ways to support young dreamers looking to further their education in technical school and working to make health care a reality for everyone.
He also cautioned against judging others by political party or race.
“If I had my choice, I’d just be an independent,” Gilliard said. “We have good Republicans and good Democrats, and you’re going to have some good white folks and some good black folks. And some people that are not so good. Some people get too caught up in party, but don’t let anyone hoodwink you. It’s not about parties.”
He said Saturday’s event “is one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen. The question is, where do we go from here?”
The answer, Gilliard said, “is in your hands.”
See more photo of the parade and celebration: